I have been reading Andrew Motion’s Larkin biography, and also Martin Amis’s selection of Larkin poems. Aside from the odd Dr Seuss-style tautology (‘How slow they are! And how much time they waste/Refusing to make haste!’) I agree with Amis – the man was ‘instantly unforgettable’. Who could forget the final stanza of ‘Money':
I listen to money singing. It’s like looking down
From long french windows at a provincial town
The slums, the canal, the churches ornate and mad
In the evening sun. It is intensely sad.
Here Larkin does more than capture a feeling – he takes you into another world.
Amis also says that ‘Larkin cleaved to a Yeatsian principle: ‘seek ‘perfection of the work rather than perfection of the life’.’ There was little perfect about Larkin’s life, indeed. His father was a supporter of Hitler, his mother an agitated codependent. He never married and had maybe five or six fraught and difficult love affairs. He lived for thirty years in the Yorkshire seaside city of Hull, running the university library – he didn’t even go to the interesting part of Yorkshire, although, having said that, I can’t exactly see the guy in LS6. Amis writes that ‘Hardly anything in Larkin’s letters is as swimmingly grim as the little clump of words and numerals in their top right hand corners: Flat 13, Elmwood Avenue, Belfast. 200 Halgate, Coddingham, East Yorkshire. 192A Halgate, Coddingham, Yorkshire. 172 London Road, Leicestershire.’ Larkin became a national treasure not despite of, but because of, his relentless gloom – he stood for a particular kind of British sentimental mediocrity, what Hitchens called ‘the world of wretched, tasteless food and watery drinks, dreary and crowded lodgings, outrageous plumbing, surly cynicism, long queues, shocking hygiene, and dismal, rain-lashed holidays, continually punctuated by rudeness and philistinism.’ In his novel The Pregnant Widow, Amis gives the name ‘Larkinland’ to the state of loneliness and sexual misery that his protoganist falls into, and I recall a joke going around on Facebook, to the effect that a Larkin memorial walk in Hull had to be called off at the last moment – because the weather was sunny.
As Amis has noted, Motion’s biography is boring because Larkin did so little with his life: Motion is forced to pad the book out with in-depth material on the restructuring of the University of Hull’s library, along with numerous administrative matters, which you don’t normally get in a literary biography. Larkin’s was a life lived mostly on the interior. Motion is writing the story of an inner life. Which isn’t to say that Larkin didn’t ever want a life. His correspondence is full of yearning for sex and something momentous about to happen. From ‘Next, Please': ‘Always too eager for the future, we/Pick up bad habits of expectancy. Something is always approaching; every day/Till then we say’.
There’s a lot in Motion about Larkin’s love affairs. For decades he had an on-off affair with a lecturer in Leicester, Monica Jones (who, from this obituary, was more animated and beautiful in her day than Amis and Hitchens will admit) but he cheated on her, kept her at arm’s length and did not cohabit with her until he had no choice. Motion makes this sort of arrangement sound unusual. But categorisation is a guy thing and many men live out their lives in such a way. They don’t commit because, well, something better might come along, you need to keep your options open and, in Larkin’s case, there was his dread of fatherhood. But it’s that compartmentalisation that makes Larkin’s life seem so sordid and creepy. Sooner or later you have to throw yourself into something.
Another thing that comes up, in Motion and in Amis, was Larkin’s provocative conservatism in later life. He was a bellicose Tory who came to write jeering quatrains and letters on sensitive subjects, in tones so ugly that I don’t want to quote them on this site. The debate on Larkin’s politics has been done to death and I won’t go into it here. Poetry matters, politics does not. And politics is often the expression of some internal pathology. Larkin was getting old and, as Motion says: ‘He knew that what might sound like the bites and barks of an independent spirit were in fact the howls of a prisoner who had reached ‘the end of choice’.’ ‘The world was a better place when I was young’ – the reactionary’s battle cry. Maybe that should be ‘The world was a better place because I was young.’
What overwhelms the poems and the biography is Larkin’s fear of death. Preoccupation with mortality dominated life and work. ‘Next, Please’ – written in his twenties – has the narrator as everyman on a shore waiting for the ships of opportunity and happiness that are on the horizon. ‘We think each one will heave to and unload/All good into our lives, all we are owed/For waiting so devoutly and so long/But we are wrong’ – the boats pass by. ‘Only one ship is seeking us, a black-/Sailed unfamiliar, towing at her back/A huge and birdless silence.’ Death is all you’re owed.
Decades later, Larkin returned to death in ‘Aubade’, where he dismissed all possibilities of coming to terms with this scary mystery – ‘This is a special way of being afraid/No trick dispels.’ Religion doesn’t appeal: ‘that vast moth-eaten musical brocade/Created to pretend we never die’ but the more rationalist view (‘No rational being can fear a thing it will not feel’) does not help either because it forgets that what we fear is nothingness itself: nothing to think with.
It’s a great poem but not the last word. I’ve just read Stephen Dobyns’s Common Carnage. Dobyns could have taught Larkin a few things about life and death. From ‘To Keep One’s Treasure Protected':
All day I have been trying to imagine the ones
who withhold themselves – arms folded across chests,
or hands buried deep in their pockets. The ones
who remain a few steps back from life, who feel
possessed of a treasure which they don’t wish
to offer the world, as if they wore their smiles
on the insides of their faces. Is this an attempt
to save themselves for the truly important moment?
Or could it suggest that the world isn’t good enough?
Or are they trying to be complete in themselves -
both lover and loved, consumer and consumed,
as if one could be complete without the world?
This captures Larkin as nothing of Motion can. ‘Our bodies are coinage,’ Dobyns says. ‘Spend it. Fling the coins upward, hear them jangle on the street.’ In ‘Crimson Invitation,’ he takes on what Larkin might have called ‘specious stuff’ – the line from Marcus Aurelius that goes ‘observe in short how transient and trivial is all mortal life; yesterday a drop of semen, tomorrow a handful of spice and ashes.’ And Dobyns asks us to consider ‘all that comes between, the fleeting, the sweet, never to be repeated, never to happen again.’ For that reason, he is a better poet than Larkin was.